Taken from Chapter 2.2 of the book “Live Young, Longer”, by Éric Simard (English version coming soon)
In a previous article, we discussed how genetics and other factors can increase or decrease your chances of becoming centenarians. Here, we will focus on the personality traits that have all been observed in centenarian populations.
Personality: factor of youth and successful aging
Among the factors associated with longevity, the personality of the individual is supported by a large number of studies involving centenarians from Japan, Sweden, the United States and Europe. It is evident today that the majority of centenarians share common personality traits. It goes without saying that if these personality traits are common to a multitude of nationalities with completely different customs, they must facilitate or partly explain the longevity of these individuals.
Primarily, it is important to define some notions of personality. Personality refers to a stable state of cognitive characteristics, motivations, social, emotional and behavioral characteristics. In order to study the importance of personality through the context of aging, measurement tools were developed. These tools consider neuroticism/emotional stability, extraversion, openness to experiences, the pleasantness and conscientiousness of people.
Neuroticism is characterized by a persistent tendency towards negative emotions. These individuals are prone to anxiety, anger, guilt and depression. Extroverted individuals tend to be very satisfied with social interactions. They are enthusiastic and talkative. They like group activities and are likely to interact socially rather than being alone.
Still genetically influenced
Personality is influenced by family history, genetic predispositions, environment, and socio-cultural factors. We would tend to think that genetics don’t play a large role and that education and the family environment play a more vital role. Some personality traits have a very strong genetic dependence. Neuroticism (strong negative emotional tendency of an individual) would be strongly hereditary, with 43% of genetic dependence. The same is true for conscientious and extroverted characteristics with 43 and 47% levels of genetic dependence.
Studies have shown that centenarians are less stressed, easier to live with and more efficient in general. They are rarely negative (neuroticism) and much more extroverted and conscientious. In addition, neuroticism has been shown to be a major risk factor for depression and premature death.
The direct physiological effects of having thoughts constantly directed towards negative emotions increase the risk of disease. These physiological effects translate into impacts on:
- Hypothalamus and pituitary gland;
- The production of stress hormones;
- Increase in blood pressure;
- Modification of the metabolism;
- Increased inflammation and
- The reduction of immune defense functions.
In addition, a more conscientious personality will have indirect impacts through habits of life focused on prevention, better nutrition, reduction of negative habits, etc.
A recent study has grouped the beneficial personality traits of centenarians into two categories:
- A positive attitude of life (optimistic, easy going, easily amused);
- An ability to express emotions (freely, without repressing them).
It’s positive to be positive
In addition to helping to age well, a positive attitude towards life would help maintain cognitive abilities longer. More specifically, one study has demonstrated a link between a positive attitude towards one’s general state of health and the maintenance of cognitive abilities. People who consider themselves healthy and positive keep their cognitive abilities longer throughout their lifetime.
Another recent study amongst centenarians from Hong Kong, reports four important considerations: (1) a positive relationship with others, (2) being happy and experiencing positive life events, (3) hope for future and (4) a positive life attitude.
The population of Okinawa
Another approach to the study of centenarians is to identify human populations with a higher proportion of centenarians. These populations may have genetic background and/or lifestyle habits that allow successful aging. The best known of these populations is that of Okinawa, Japan.
Okinawa Island is part of the Okinawa Archipelago, made up of a large number of islands in southern Japan. These islands form a nature reserve with unique animal species.
There are 4 to 5 times more centenarians and Okinawa’s descendants are 2.5 to 5 times more likely to live more than 90 years of age than the North American average. Although Japan is the industrialized country where people have the greatest life expectancy, the population of Okinawa is still 4-5% higher than that of the rest of Japan.
Okinawa is also behind the world’s largest follow-up study of centenarians. The study began in 1976 and has followed over 900 centenarians to date.
A unique culture
This population retains a unique culture, distinct from traditional Japanese culture in terms of food, art, religion and eating habits. Families are larger and usually live under the same roof or nearby in the same village.
By the late 1980s, some genetic factors related to inflammation had already been identified as being a representative factor for the Okinawa population. In the same way, the characterization of their exceptional state of health has revealed low rates of cardiovascular disease, higher bone density, lower cognitive loss as they age, etc. The centenarians of Okinawa are aging well. They remain, in 80% of the cases, without problems of health before the age of 80 years old. The majority of centenarians have no serious problems for 100 years.
Their health deteriorates thereafter between 100 and 105 years of age. In addition, cancer or cardiovascular disease is not the leading cause of death for Japanese centenarians: it is pneumonia.
A set of factors
It is difficult, however, to relate these characteristics of good health to their particular genetics or their lifestyle. Since each family shares the same lifestyle and the same genetic background, one can imagine that the search for the cause of their longevity is laborious. It is clear, however, that heredity and lifestyle are part of it.
The Okinawa diet is now recognized for its very important health benefits. The inhabitants consume little meat, a lot of vegetables, soy and fish. Similarly, they consume few refined grain products (such as bleached flour), salt, saturated fat, and high-fat dairy products. Their diet is rich in nutrients from fruits and vegetables, and low in calories. This diet has, among other things, a significant anti-inflammatory impact.
It is also important to mention that the Japanese tend to stop being completely satisfied (“hara hachi bu” (eat only to be 80% satiated). Because of this habit and their low-calorie diet, they have a low body weight index and a health profile that is achieved by caloric restriction.
However, the importance of other lifestyle habits must not be neglected. They continue to remain engaged in daily work such as vegetable farming along with selling it themselves. They cycle, walk many miles a day and do yoga, karate or dance. Some even asked for an active sex life at age 90. Physical activity also keeps them connected to society. They place a lot of importance on caring for each other.
In general, they have a positive attitude towards life, exude a joyful outlook on life and strongly believe that everyone has a reason to do the same (“ikari”). This reason for being is also a reason to live, a way to be optimistic about life and to stay positive. This attitude allows them to live with very little stress.
Other supercentenarians populations
There are five known and well-documented regions whose inhabitants have a greater life expectancy. These are the regions of Okinawa, the island of Sardinia in Italy, a small community in California, a mountain region in Costa Rica (the Nicoya Peninsula) and the island of Ikaria in Greece.
These regions were categorized as “blue zones”, places where centenarians are still healthy.
Similar to Okinawa, all these communities share the same longevity factors: a diet based on a high consumption of fruits and vegetables, a moderate physical activity integrated into their lifestyle, a very important social/family life, a spiritual practice/meaning in life that gives them a reason to live and reduces their stress.
These people are particularly healthy all their lives. For example, the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica, has a population with the lowest average mortality rate (average age) in the world. A 60-year-old person over there is four times more likely to live to age 90 than an average American.
Maybe while reading this article you thought it was too late to change your lifestyle or to see life differently …? Think again! No matter what age you are, know that any changes, big or small, will benefit your health. Look forward to small victories and praise yourself for taking care of your well-being.
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- Willcox DC1, Willcox BJ, Todoriki H, Suzuki M. 2009. The Okinawan diet: health implications of a low-calorie, nutrient-dense, antioxidant-rich dietary pattern low in glycemic load. J Am Coll Nutr. Aug;28 Suppl:500S-516S.
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- Wong, W.C., Lau, H.P., Kwok, C.F., Leung, Y.M., Chan, M.Y., Chan, W.M., Cheung, S.L. 2014. The well-being of community-dwelling near-centenarians and centenarians in Hong Kong: a qualitative study. BMC Geriatr. May 13;14:63.